Jonathan Muskat

When Our Children See Our Spiritual Struggles

I was hiking with my 11-year old son last week in Potomac and we stopped for a break and he took a snack and starting chewing the food and I told him, “Make sure to mouth the words when you recite a bracha.”  And he turned to me innocently and said, “Well, you don’t mouth the words.”  And I started wondering, do I or do I not mouth the words of my brachot?  Whether I do or not, what’s clear is that I wasn’t doing it enough for my 11-year old son to take note.  Well, making sure that I mouth the words while reciting a bracha seems like an easy fix. But some parents struggle with the fact that they have difficulty doing things that their children are expected to do at school.

Our children are being told in school to daven with diligence and yet many parents struggle to sit in shul on Shabbat throughout the davening.  Our sons are being told to wear tzitzit during the day and tefillin for davening and yet many fathers struggle to wear tzitzit and tefillin.  Our children are taught the importance of Talmud Torah and many children come home on a weekly basis with Divrei Torah and parsha questions to share at the Shabbat table, and yet many parents do not share any Divrei Torah of their own nor do their children see them taking out time to study Torah.  When children are younger, they may not notice their parents standing outside shul during davening or not wearing tzitzit or not sharing Divrei Torah at the Shabbat table.  However, at some point, they start to notice that they are receiving two different messages about their precious Jewish faith:  one in school and one at home.  And then what do the parents do?

There are some parents who unfortunately have lost their passion for their rich Jewish heritage and observe the mitzvot that they do out of social obligation and send their children to Yeshiva day school because that’s what their friends do.  But these parents really don’t care.  At the end of the day they don’t care about their own religious future and they don’t care about their child’s religious future. Maybe these parents have some red lines for their children.  Maybe it’s staying orthodox.  Maybe it’s marrying Jewish.  Maybe there are no red lines because the parents just aren’t interested.

However, what I have described probably reflects the minority of parents who may struggle to observe that which their children are taught in Yeshiva day school.  I have observed many parents who would like their children to remain observant, committed Jews, but they don’t appreciate the power that they have.  They think that a Yeshiva day school education is sufficient and they can hide their lack of observance from their children, when the reality is that this is so far from the truth.

Rabbi Michael Rosensweig, Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS, once pointed out that in the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, there is a dual, interconnected requirement of “lilmod” and “l’lamed,” of both studying and teaching.  As an example, in the Rambam’s title to the laws of Talmud Torah, he writes that there is a mitzvah to study Torah but in the very first halacha, he writes that the mitzvah is to teach our children.  Rabbi Rosensweig suggested that, according the Rambam, the “kiyum hamitzvah,” the fulfillment of the mitzvah, as indicated by the title of the laws of Talmud Torah, is through studying because through studying we achieve yediat Hashem, we understand and we identify with God.  However, the “maaseh hamitzvah,” the methodology to achieve this goal, is through teaching.  Why is this so?  If we are forced to teach that which we learn, we truly have to know the material. Additionally, if we must transmit it to someone else, we must be passionate about the Torah so that the listener will be interested.  Moreover, through teaching we create a special bond between Rebbe and student such that the Gemara refers to students as biological children. In short, the requirement of Torah study is more than simply exposure to Torah or gaining mastery of a certain knowledge base. It requires immersion, passion, engagement and a strong relationship between Rebbe and student.

Children who perceive this immersion, passion and engagement in their parents, a Torah lifestyle of “lilmod u’l’lamed,” are far more likely to be committed Jews when they become adults.  But many parents find the task too daunting.  To these parents I say that it may not be easy for you, but it is not easy for your children either and yet they are trying.  The children are trying because they understand the consequences in school if they don’t try.  Maybe parents need to more fully appreciate the consequences to their children if the parents don’t try.  Parents can be open and honest with their children that they are having difficulty with certain mitzvot, but parents can model the effort to be better and to spiritually grow for their children.  We cannot hide our flaws from our children once they reach a certain age, but we can join them in their effort to do better and to be better and we can even grow together as a team, as a family project!  And hopefully, when we start to routinely make sure to mouth our brachot, our children will follow in kind.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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